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Who's Fascist Now?

The irony of the left's favorite epithet.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Liberal Fascism

The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning

by Jonah Goldberg

Back during his 1976 campaign for president, Ronald Reagan made the offhand comment to Time that "Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal." When Reagan finally grasped the Republican nomination in 1980, Democrats gleefully retrieved that remark to use as proof of Reagan's supposed extremism. The media dutifully obliged, pressing Reagan on what he could possibly have meant with such an odd and inflammatory comment.

To the dismay of his campaign managers, Reagan defended the remark: "Anyone who wants to look at the writings of the Brain Trust of the New Deal will find that President Roosevelt's advisers admired the fascist system. .  .  . They thought that private ownership with government management and control à la the Italian system was the way to go, and that has been evident in all their writings." This was, Reagan added, "long before fascism became a dirty word in the lexicon of the liberals." The Washington Post was agog: "Several historians of the New Deal period questioned by The Washington Post said they had no idea what Reagan was referring to."

With the arrival of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, neither the media nor self-satisfied liberals will be able to retreat any longer behind such a veil of ignorance. Goldberg has set out to rescue the idea of fascism from the dustbin of cartoonish epithets and restore it as a meaningful category of political thought; and, moreover, to demonstrate that contemporary American liberalism owes its origin and character to some of the same core ideas and principles that gave rise to European fascism in the first half of the 20th century.

His thesis will raise hackles, when it isn't deliberately ignored, for the reason Goldberg rightly identifies: Contemporary liberals are strangely uninterested in the pedigree of their own ideas. (When was the last time you heard a liberal discussing Herbert Croly, or even John Dewey, as a relevant source for contemporary understanding?) Instead, the left will go on deploying "fascism" as a conversation-stopper against conservatives, even though the term ought to be associated overwhelmingly with liberalism.

"In reality," Goldberg argues at the outset, "international fascism drew from the same intellectual wellsprings as American Progressivism," which was the precursor to contemporary American liberalism. And conservatism cannot be understood seriously as an offshoot or cousin of fascism.

Goldberg's analysis comes in two parts. The first task is to clear away the tangled overgrowth of misconceptions about the meaning of fascism itself. The term has long been controversial or vague among political thinkers, and its popular conception understandably colored by its Nazi incarnation. Fascism should be understood as a supercharged nationalistic statism, finding its theoretical wellsprings in Hegelian historicism, Rousseau's protean "general will," Nietzschean will-to-power, Darwinian evolution, and a smattering of the Social Gospel thrown in for good measure--all of which overturned the older liberalism of Locke, the Enlightenment, and the American Founders.

In America this soup came to boil as Deweyite "pragmatism," but despite the calm and practical associations pragmatism conjures, fascism thrives in an atmosphere of constant crisis, which only a bigger, more active state can confront.

As Goldberg makes abundantly clear, fascism is a species of revolutionary socialism, with totalitarian implications. Vicious racism is not an inherent aspect of fascism--though many American progressives, such as Woodrow Wilson, exhibited strong racist streaks--and Nazi fascism should be understood as an aberration peculiar to Germany. Mussolini, rather than Hitler, should be understood as the paradigm of fascism.

"Nazism was the product of German culture, grown out of a German context. The Holocaust could not have occurred in Italy, because Italians are not Germans," writes Goldberg. This qualification is essential to his overall argument, because he is emphatic in avoiding the charge that he is engaging in reductio ad Hitlerum; that is, in arguing that liberalism is fascistic, he is not trying to suggest liberals are crypto-Nazis. Nonetheless, his survey of the origin and meaning of fascism cannot get around the ways in which the Nazis appropriated and transformed fascist thought to their own uses, and as such, the extreme cases of Hitler and Mussolini make it difficult to grasp the non-extreme case of American fascism.

Goldberg's delineation of American fascism is the second part of his analysis and the bulk of the book. He identifies three fascist episodes in modern American history: the Progressive Era (and especially World War I); the New Deal; and the 1960s.